Ger­ry­man­der­ing de­ci­sion just crip­pled Amer­i­can democ­racy

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD -

Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice John Roberts finds ex­treme par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing “un­just.” He doesn’t con­done it him­self. He doesn’t even de­fend it as con­sti­tu­tional. But he just is­sued the 5-4 ma­jor­ity opin­ion, with all five Repub­li­can ap­pointees on one side and all four Democrats on the other, in a case that opens the door to politi­cians draw­ing dis­trict lines to fa­vor their party with­out any fear of con­sti­tu­tional chal­lenge. Given the ex­treme ex­am­ples of ger­ry­man­der­ing in the two states whose maps were be­fore the court — Mary­land and North Carolina — not to men­tion plenty of oth­ers like Wis­con­sin and Texas, we shud­der to imag­ine how badly po­lit­i­cal hacks with map­ping soft­ware are about to frac­ture our democ­racy.

The court has never set con­sti­tu­tional stan­dards for par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing be­fore, but this rul­ing is none­the­less a sweeping one. Pre­vi­ously, the courts had held out some sug­ges­tion that they could po­lice the ex­tremes of the prac­tice if only plain­tiffs could pro­vide the right le­gal the­ory or stan­dard for the courts to ap­ply.

But Mr. Roberts’ opin­ion dashes those hopes once and for all. He de­clared ger­ry­man­der­ing a purely po­lit­i­cal prob­lem in need of a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion, with no role for the courts what­so­ever. He prof­fered a few pro­foundly un­help­ful sug­ges­tions for lim­it­ing the prac­tice, like fed­eral leg­is­la­tion forc­ing states to adopt non­par­ti­san re­dis­trict­ing com­mis­sions, state laws to es­tab­lish them or voter ini­tia­tives to re­quire them.

Well, not all states al­low voter ini­tia­tives. (Mary­land and North Carolina, per­haps not co­in­ci­den­tally, are among those that do not grant cit­i­zens that power.) Fed­eral leg­is­la­tion? Mary­land U.S. Rep. John Sar­banes’ elec­tion re­form bill in­cludes anti-ger­ry­man­der­ing leg­is­la­tion, and it has gone pre­cisely nowhere in the Se­nate. And as for state law­mak­ers polic­ing them­selves, we have a bit of ex­pe­ri­ence here in how dif­fi­cult that is to achieve.

Mary­land’s con­gres­sional dis­tricts are among the least com­pact and con­tigu­ous in the na­tion, and they were drawn with the stated in­tent of ex­pand­ing Democrats’ ma­jor­ity in our house del­e­ga­tion from 6-2 to 7-1. Vot­ers aren’t happy about that. The lat­est poll on the mat­ter found that Mary­lan­ders want an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion rather than elected of­fi­cials to draw the lines by a 73-20 mar­gin. Gov. Larry Ho­gan, Mary­land’s ex­tremely pop­u­lar Repub­li­can chief ex­ec­u­tive, has been push­ing the cause of re­dis­trict­ing re­form for years, and he won in a land­slide over a Demo­crat who vowed at one point to mon­key with the lines enough to make the del­e­ga­tion 8-0 if pos­si­ble. For­mer Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley, a Demo­crat who prac­ticed the dark arts of ger­ry­man­der­ing a decade ago, has re­pented and sup­ports an in­de­pen­dent process. The law­suit that even­tu­ally landed be­fore the Supreme Court re­sulted in highly em­bar­rass­ing tes­ti­mony about what Mary­land’s Democrats did to get the re­sults they sought.

Yet has the Gen­eral Assem­bly lifted a fin­ger to change the process here? Not at all. They have sought to en­act some leg­isla­tive fig leaves in the form of a multi-state com­pact to aban­don ger­ry­man­der­ing, but they re­fer to the idea of re­form­ing on our own as “uni­lat­eral dis­ar­ma­ment.” Even the prospect that Mr. Ho­gan will use his role in the process to tilt the scales more in Repub­li­cans’ fa­vor — or at least to force Democrats to em­ploy nakedly par­ti­san tac­tics to block him — seems not enough to shame them into ac­tion. Politi­cians sim­ply aren’t will­ing to cede a weapon they ex­pect their party will even­tu­ally be able to wield in their fa­vor, and vot­ers, with many other is­sues on their minds, sim­ply don’t throw politi­cians out for sup­port­ing skewed maps.

But the truth is that ger­ry­man­dered maps affect how every other is­sue is ad­dressed. Elec­tions in dis­tricts de­signed to pro­duce a representa­tive from one party or the other mean elec­tions are de­cided based on which can­di­date can ap­peal to their party’s base in the pri­maries, not on which can ap­peal to the broad­est seg­ment of the elec­torate. In prac­tice, that re­wards ex­trem­ism on both sides and pun­ishes com­pro­mise. It thwarts democ­racy and pre­vents us from sen­si­ble so­lu­tions to the ma­jor is­sues of our time.

Rus­sia used hack­ers in the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to stir ex­trem­ists and spread doubts about our democ­racy. They need no longer bother. The Supreme Court just fin­ished the job.

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